REDEMPTION (Book One: The London Crime King)

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I roused to early morning sunlight filtering through the window voiles. I squinted an eye open, the second one followed, last night's hellacious behaviour, irremovable, suffocating my chest. Imbued with dreaded regret and embarrassment, I exhaled a shuddered breath, turned my head to the side and noticed a large figure sprawled beside me. Liam Warren is in my bed, arm protectively draped around my midsection, muscular back misted in clammy perspiration. I closed my loosened mouth, eyes rounded, stunned. He stayed the night—with me. He kept me in his hold, hadn't fled at the crack of dawn. The double bed looked extremely small and uncomfortably unaccommodating for this man. He's too big, feet hanging off the end, hair tousled, irritating his soft, lidded eyes. Those full lips, separated, almost inseparable breaths brushing against my cheek. "You're so beautiful," I whispered, knowing he couldn't hear me.

Raking a hand through my unruly hair, I gingerly lifted his deadweight arm off my stomach and slipped out of bed, trying not to disturb him. I checked the time on my phone: ten a.m. It's late. In Liam's universe, he's expected at Club 11—should be with the men. But he's not at work. He's here with me—spent the entire night with me.

I placed the phone onto the bedside table, a gleeful smile dancing on my lips. And then last night's meltdown crashed around me. "Shit," I breathed, dragging myself to the bathroom. I relieved my bladder, washed my hands and face, added paste to a toothbrush. In the mirror, I scrutinised my reflection, balanced the toothbrush between clenched teeth, fussed with my hair. I don't want him to see me like this—

"Hey." Liam's throaty morning voice husked behind me, and I bristled. "Why didn't you wake me?"

I cleaved his eyes in the mirror. He put a shoulder to the doorframe, hands absently moving south, relaxed beneath the waistband of his black boxer briefs, chiselled abdominal and glorious V-line eliciting my eyes to wander in forbidden areas.

"I only just got up," I tell him, unhurriedly and vigilantly brushing my teeth to avoid paste dribbling down my chin.

Liam moved to the toilet, unabashedly urinates, one hand scratching his bare chest, eyes looking heavenward—vulnerable, carefree, untailored, unarmed, unguarded—too normal.

He nudged me aside, washed his hands. "Do you have a spare?" Opening the wall-mounted cabinet, helping himself to a packaged toothbrush, he breaks the seal, adds paste and brushes his teeth, spitting foam straight into the sink, admiring himself in the mirror. "How did you sleep?"

"Good," I mumble over bristles, wait for him to finish and retreat before relieving the minty ambush in my mouth. In the hallway, I see he replaced the front door—and the bathroom one. "Did you do that?" I asked, returning to the bedroom. "The doors, I mean."

Casually perched on the bed edge, Liam glanced at the time on my phone. "I had the men over earlier." He fisted my T-shirt, coercing me to straddle him, hands creeping under the oversized material, cupping my ass cheeks. "Are you okay?"

I was speechless, puzzled. "Aren't you supposed to be at the club?"

"Later," he rasps, falling onto his back, bringing me with him. "I wanted to spend the day with you."

What the actual fuck? "You want to spend the day—with me," I repeated, eyeing him sceptically. "Why?" Demeaning understanding dawned on me. "No, don't pretend you care or feel sorry for me, Liam. I am not a liability; I am not suicidal." I tried to climb off him, but his hands dig deeper. "I don't need twenty-four-hour surveillance because you think I might try and top myself again. It was a moment of weakness—"

"Shut up," he berates, hand curling around my throat, drawing me close. "You like putting words in my goddamn mouth. I am here for you," he emphasised, his rough, resolute voice scattering horripilation across my warm skin. "Yes, I am concerned. I want to know why you impulsively lashed out yesterday." He abruptly rolled me beneath him, hips nudging my thighs apart so that he could settle between them. "I know you," he adds, and my eyebrows cinched. "Something happened. You only lose yourself when triggered."

Again, he rendered me speechless.

"Your friend left early for work." He applied pressure to my throat, thumb slowly circling. "Don't panic. She doesn't know I am here," he whispered against my lips, kissing me softly. "I have you all to myself."

Arms idly relaxed on either side of my head, I outline his features with curious eyes, feeling his arousal pressed up to my core. "What's happening? Why are you here, Liam? In fact, why did you come over yesterday?" I prattled question after question, confused by this pleasant yet unforeseen occurrence. "How did you know...?"

"I didn't know anything," he said, short, sharp. "I swung by to see you. What does it matter? Do you wish I hadn't? Do you wish I'd walked away and let you achieve?"

"I told you, I am not suicidal—"

"No, you just endeavoured to drown yourself for sport," he spat, collapsing onto the mattress beside me. "Fucking hell."

I laid motionless, heart wedging in my chest. "I am embarrassed," I admitted, chewing my thumbnail. "I didn't want you to see me like that." For him to judge and regard me differently, I thought.

Silence settled among us. Liam propped onto one elbow, splayed a hand across my stomach, eyes avoiding mine. "I am an envied and despised man by many," he said, tracing my navel with his fingertips. "Whoever amalgamates with me immediately has a target on their back. Over the years, since amassing the syndicate, I have lost a lot of men."

He was opening up, instilling his trust in me. "Liam..."

"I swore to myself a long time ago that women were nothing but a means to an end—solely for pleasure, a release." His eyes aligned with mine. "I don't need a weakness, Alexa." I held my breath. "It's life-threatening. Do you understand?"

I was unable to control full-blown hypertension. I didn't need vocalised confirmation. He bore his adoration in those deep-set eyes. "Are you admitting you might care about me?"

He gives me a long look. "You know, I do."

I stared at him in disbelief. "Well, you have a funny way of showing it, Liam. Do you expect me to believe I'm special? You ditched Christmas arrangements to be with Cherry—"

"I never touched her," he retorts, growing unsettled, irritated. "I do, however, want to touch you."

"Liam," I warned, shoving his chest as he mounts above me. "I am not sleeping with you."

His confident smirk irked me. "Are you sure?" He cupped me, pressed the heel of his hand to my sex. "I can make it good for you."

"You still haven't answered my question." I breathed through my nose. "You skirt around it, avoid giving me straight answers."

"What was the question?" His lips taunted the shell of my ear, hands pinning my hips beneath him.

I tilted my head, looking deep in his eyes. "Why are you here?"

He pondered briefly. "I missed you."

My lungs inflated. I wanted to believe him.

Liam carefully removed my T-shirt, lust-filled gaze settling on my breasts. "Keeping you is wrong," he said, taking one mound in his callous hand, thumb stimulating my nipple. "Keeping you is dangerous." He dipped his head, twirled his tongue around my pebbled peak, sucked me into his mouth. "But I didn't get through life being a moral citizen." His hands pushed down on my inner thighs, opening me up to him. Rested on his haunches, he dropped his scrutiny to my exposed pussy, slowly licking his bottom lip. "I am selfish, demanding, unquenchably avaricious." His head disappeared between my thighs, tongue flattening against my clit. "And I always get what I want."

A strained moan fell from my lips, spine anchoring off the mattress. "Liam." I reached for his head, fingers tangling through his hair. "Shit."

His wicked strokes, seamlessly placed, magnetised, fingers painfully digging into my skin. Devouring me with thorough determination, he sucked hard, two fingers wading through my cleft, seeking my G-spot. He finds it, knuckled-deep, scissoring, pumping, all while tantalising my needy core. He caressed my slit with his tongue, mouth suctioned firmer, building me up to orgasm. And it slammed into me like a freight train, my walls milking his fingers, climax radiating through me.

"Liam," I cried, fingers grappling the sheets, his unrelenting mouth, ravenous. "Oh, God."

"No." Pinning me with those heavy-lidded eyes, he withdrew his hand, sucked my arousal from his fingers, humming in approval. "Liam Warren."

"You're hardly a lothario." A cocky asshole, though. "I might need you after all," I said, admiring his bulge, straining against his boxer briefs.

He gave me a short, caustic laugh. "I thought you didn't want sex." He crawled over me, positioned his hands astride my head. Those eyes studied me, flickered over my features. "You are fucking beautiful."

My heart palpitated. I yearned to tell Liam how much I loved him—how much I wanted to be his. I didn't want to scare him away, though. Call me insane, foolish, unreasonable and delusional, but I missed him so much. "You're not so bad yourself, Mr Warren."

The intended lasciviousness had earned me an amused smirk. "Come back to the club," he mused, and my affectionate smile ebbed. "You don't need to labour at the Coffee House, pouring coffees for a pittance—"

Of course, he knows where I work. "I am happy there, Liam." My affirmation isn't entirely true. Sure, I love Grayson and Jace is a potential friend, but I'd much rather operate alongside Josh. In saying that, I no longer have faith in Liam.

What happens tomorrow or the next day?

Will antagonism and indecisiveness compensate for his recent uncharacteristic friendliness and sudden adoration?

Next week, he might decide Natalie's looking enticing and drop me again.

No. I hold the power cards. I am self-sufficient and dependent.

"What's that look?"

I frowned. "What look?"

"I can see those wheels turning inside your head," he said hoarsely, combing his fingers through my hair. "Get it out."

I chewed the inside of my cheek. "What are we doing?"

"We're testing the waters," he affirmed without hesitation, laying a chaste kiss to my lips. "Don't overcomplicate us, Alexa. I just want to see how things go."

I smiled. I tried exceptionally hard to refrain from beaming, but my traitorous lips widened. "Can I call you my man," I hint, wrapping my arms around his broad shoulders, fingernails tickling the nape of his neck, contouring his white gold military-style chain. "You know in case a guy wants to take me on a date—" He sank his teeth into my shoulder. "Liam!"

"What man?" he asked, seriousness replacing faux humour.

Intentionally goading the unreasonably dogmatic caveman, I enveloped my legs around his waist, pretending to jog my memory. "Oh, well, there's been so many since you..." He runs a hand through his dark hair, unsmiling, piercing blue eyes smouldered with intense enrage and pledging perilousness. "I am kidding," I whispered, cognising the precipitated darkness pervading our surroundings. "Nobody sees me but you, Liam."

"Bullshit," he reprimands, lips trailing feather-light caresses along my jawline. "You turn heads when entering a room." He welded a predatory kiss to my lips. His growl vibrates, tongue spearing into my mouth, hips fused to mine. "Don't ever tease me with other men, baby, not unless you're prepared to sign their death certificate."

I caught my breath as he rolled off me, watched him round the bed, adjusting his boxer briefs, lessening his ache. "There's something I need to discuss with you," he said, collecting his discarded suit. "And then I want you to get ready for tonight."

His calm voice failed to assuage me. "Where are we going?" I stood, stretching my arms above my head, yawning. "Can we leave serious conversations at the door for one day? I am kinda liking this dream and don't want to wake up."

Liam lingered by the window, glancing outside while tugging on his trousers. "It's about your sister."

I fell crestfallen. "What about her?" I asked, alert, returning to my spot on the bed.

Towing the curtain aside, arranging it around the hook, he opened the window fully, popped a cigarette between his lips and fired the end. "Tell me how you escaped that night."

His straight-talking question unnerved me. "I..." What does it matter? "Why?"

"I don't like repeating myself, Alexa."

I blew out a stream of air. "Kathy found me."

"What if you're not real?" I whispered, hands trembling. "What if I come out and you're not there?"

"I'm real." She sat beside me, protruding mattress springs complaining. "Alexa." She gingerly eased the blanket from my iron grip. "I'm real."

"She obtained keys," I said, omitting the part where Flamur likely handed them to her, "and unlocked the back door—we ran." I lift an insouciant shoulder. "We ran and never looked back."

"I can't breathe." Goosebumps sheath my skin, heat soars through my body, causing my cold cheeks to burn and my chest to cave. I might struggle to breathe, and my body might ache from the balls of my feet to the tightening in my stomach—years of captivity has taken its toll on my limbs—however, emotionally, I'm unaffected. I welcome the rain, embrace the chilly night air, savour the fresh, earthy smell as my lips instinctively part to taste downpour on my tongue, moisturising my parched throat.

"Keep running!" she yelled over her shoulder.

I mashed a palm to my chest, pacifying my accelerating heart rate. "I couldn't tell you what day or time it was. I knew it was late because it was dark outside."

Head flinging back on a refuelling gasp, I braced my hands on her shoulders, breathless, sticky and salty. I stared deep into her eyes, watched water beads dance on her lashes, blue, chafed lips slow-moving as she murmurs obscure words. "Understand?" she mused, and I nodded regardless of incomprehension, teeth clattering together. Her eyes veered past my head at the sound of advancing, animalistic howls. "Now is not the time to panic."

"Our only way to flee the compound was to swim," I explained, recalling the ice-cold water clinging to my limbs. "By the time we reached the motorway, our sodden clothes had dried. It was like breathing for the first time. I felt uncivilised yet free. I watched the birds above and wanted nothing more than to fly."

Liam sat beside me, urging me to focus on him. "Police records suggest Kathy couldn't remember anything," he said, and I grew guarded. "But you did."

Kathy turned to face me and fussed with my appearance, wiping grime from my cheeks, attempting to comb her fingers through my hair. "You know nothing," she whispers, kissing my forehead. "You don't know who took us or who held us captive."

I eyed two suited detectives, the one seeking my eyes with his concerned ones. "Why?" I asked, not wanting to lie. "They will help us."

Bringing me in for a tight hug, Kathy sniffled in my ear. "I don't want him to get mad."

"I don't know what she told them," I lied, building an impenetrable wall between us. "It was a long time ago."

He analysed me closely, searched my eyes. "Why did Kathy try and kill you that night?"

"I think she was under the influence," I half-lied, opening the bedside drawer, snagging a T-shirt. "You probably know more about her condition than I do, so you tell me."

Liam eyed the drawer. "Heroin and crack," he explains, and light-headedness immobilised me. "Cocaine, Molly—take your pick. She was into some pretty heavy shit."

My heart thudded. "I underestimated how much our past traumatised and affected—"

"Do not simplify or downplay Kathy's egregious intentions," he warned, seizing my jaw. "Lying and fabricating truths will not protect your perspective, Alexa."

I yanked the cotton T-shirt over my head and studied the floor. I know he's right. "Part of me thinks if I don't admit what she did aloud, then it's not true." I faced him head-on. "Flamur authorised our escape. Kathy didn't save me. She wanted to get me away from him. I'll never truly understand her reasoning or motive—only she had the power to explain and fill in the blanks—but it's evident she fell in love with our captor and convinced herself I was a threat." Tears burn my eyes. I blinked them back, refusing to shed any more sentiments. "I guess, in some way, she was right. He was fond of me. I was his favourite," I admit, sickness pivoting in the pit of my stomach. "What I cannot fathom, though, is how I didn't see it. Not once over the years did I deem Kathy was dangerous or scheming with malevolence intent—"

"Until the night she reappeared?"

Or when she chased me down in the street. "Yes." His unmoved demeanour stunned me. "You don't seem taken aback or surprised."

"No," he confirms, scratching his jaw. "I am privy to Kathy's affair with Bajramovic. In fact, that's why I wanted to address it with you." He inched closer, tucking a tendril of hair behind my ear. "I felt you had the right to know, but it seems you're more switched on than I realised. I do, however, have another question, Alexa. Why did you keep this from me? The night Kathy came here to kill you, why didn't you tell me her underlying logic?"

"As I said, I didn't want to believe her cruelty festered from jealousy and love." I felt shame cling to my cheeks. "I didn't want to believe my big sister chose a monster over me." I reached between the bed frame and mattress, revealing her diary. "After speaking to..." Josh, I thought, flickering through pages. "I found this and—"

Liam snatched the tattered leather-bound from me, expression darkening before my eyes. "Have you read all this?" he asked, raking his eyes over the untidy passages.

"Almost. I try and read—hey," I called as he storms out of the bedroom, "where are you going?" I followed him down the hallway. "Liam?"

Unlocking the front door, he flees, descending the stairwell, journal firmly gripped in a white-knuckled fist. He vacates the building through the back door, dodging strewn litter and overgrown shrubbery border.

I join him outside, keeping my back to the polychromatic wall, arms hugging my waist.

He snags a steel bin, dumps garbage onto the unkempt grass, ignites a lighter flame and sets the pages alight.

"Liam," I chastise, dashing toward him. "You can't do that! It belongs to my sister—"

"Belonged," he cruelly rectified, tossing the burning, crackling pages into his makeshift incinerator. "Kathy is dead—never coming back. You don't need insight or any more knowledge of her unhinged outlook."

I staggered beside him, the time-worn pages melting. "You had no right—" He snagged my elbow, dragging me back toward the building. "Liam, let go of me!" I wriggled against him, but he's overpowering, virtually elevating my feet off the ground, hauling me into the flat. "I didn't want you to do that! I never finished reading—" His mouth claimed mine, something he's learnt to do when required to shut me up. "Liam," I whimpered, hearing the door slam behind us. "Erasing memories is impossible. I love her regardless."

Inside my bedroom, he backed me up against the wall, lips caressing mine as he blindly rummages through my wardrobe. "I like this one," he murmurs, lifting a red satin mini dress, ripping the tag off with his teeth. "Grab a shower and get ready so that I can take you out."

There's no reasoning with this man. "Where are you taking me?"

"I'm going to feed you," he said, and I swear there was hinted suggestiveness in his smooth voice.

"Isn't this dress a little short for a restaurant? I bought that to go clubbing."

Liam gave me a wolfish smirk. "You're wearing it for me." He snagged his shirt, slipped it on, buttoning. "I need to be somewhere, but I'll pick you up soon." Ducking his head, he kissed my cheek. "Be ready to be collected in three hours."

I remained by the window as he changed, waited for him to leave, the front door slamming behind him before I breathed again—and then I saw the bedside drawer ajar. My forehead creased with concerned lines as I opened it fully, fossicking through. "No, no, no," I murmured, lunging miscellaneous items across my shoulder. "Shit!"

Spearing a panicked hand through my hair, I yanked back the curtain in time to see his Bentley screech down the street.

Liam found the photos.

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